The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, by Jean-Yves Leloup

The Gospel of Mary Magdalene

The Gospel of Mary Magdalene is a translation of the Gospel of Mary from Coptic, with commentary, by Jean-Yves Leloup (English translation and notes by Joseph Rowe).

The existence of the Gospel of Mary was brought to light in Cairo in 1896. Some fifty years later, what are now known as the gnostic gospels were discovered in Nag Hammadi, Egypt. Jean-Yves Leloup provides here a fascinating interpretation and commentary of the Gospel of Mary, with a few rewarding diversions into other texts, including some surprising revelations, and his alternate translation of excerpts from other gospels. At the heart of this work is what amounts to a map of human spiritual potential, the essence of Jesus’s goal as found in the Gospel of Mary, presented as a way of guiding those who would follow, to become fully human.

The material is presented in two parts.

Part One of this book is the Coptic Text and Translation, and is a mere 20 pages in length. This is a simple layout of each page of Coptic text on the left, with the English translation [from French by Joseph Rowe, with some comparison to other translations] on the facing righthand page. I found this presentation refreshing, allowing me to read the undiluted translation up front, before any commentary was added. This allowed me to get a feel for the original writing without the hindrance of opinion or dissection. It put me in mind of literature classes, in which I always felt my first clean reading of a poem was the truest, before the instructor had the class take it apart bit by bit.

The original pagination is retained and line numbers are added, which correspond roughly, though not exactly, to the original. The text is brief, and there are several missing pages. Of the 19 original pages of script only 9 remain intact, as follows:

Pages 1-6 missing
Pages 7-10 intact
Pages 11-14 missing
Pages 15-19 intact

I count 1,145 [translated] words in all. Though brief and fragmented, this is powerful reading for anyone who, like me, has a problem believing in a physical resurrection or wants to learn more about the relationship of Mary Magdalene to Jesus. This gospel presents Mary as closer to her Teacher than is usually evident in the New Testament (in my admittedly limited experience of it). It also suggests that her vision of the resurrected Jesus, who is often referred to in this gospel as the Teacher, was of a more spiritual than physical nature.

First we enter mid-stream a conversation between Jesus and his disciples. It’s not clear, due to the missing pages, when this occurred, or exactly who was present, but the questions asked and answered indicate that it may have been a private meeting with the apostles, and that it involved teachings we don’t see in the canonical gospels. The questions are more esoteric, venturing into the nature of matter and the sin of the world, which according to the Teacher doesn’t exist. In his words, “There is no sin. It is you who make sin exist, when you act according to the habits of your corrupted nature; this is where sin lies.”

Later in the gospel, we’ve clearly reached a time after the crucifixion, with a description of the Teacher’s appearance to Mary in a vision, and the teachings given to her in that vision. Then follow the apostles’ reactions. The translation makes clear a reluctance on the part of some of the apostles to take Mary’s vision of the Teacher at her word, or any woman’s word for that matter, particularly on the part of Andrew and Peter. Levi defends Mary with a reminder to the others that they are different than their adversaries in their attitudes toward women, that if their Teacher held Mary worthy, “. . . who are you to reject her? Surely the Teacher knew her very well, for he loved her more than us.”

Part Two offers Text With Commentary. Leloup’s commentary covers not only his interpretive theories regarding the text of the gospel, but much more. In explaining his reasons for his translation of certain passages and specific words, he also goes into his opinion on the translation of bits of the canonical gospels, retranslating the Beatitudes into a more empowering form. He replaces “Blessed are” with “Walk forth,” creating an inspiring and motivating challenge to action in this world, rather than awaiting rewards in the afterlife.

I’m personally intrigued by his translation of a portion of the Gospel of Thomas. I’d recently seen another translation inexplicably used as an argument against Jesus’ close relationship with Mary Magdalene. Leloup translates the Greek anthropos not as a man in the masculine sense, which he says would be andros in Greek, but as fully human, or Anthropos. This makes much more sense of the Gospel of Thomas, and is a serendipitous detail I didn’t expect to come across in this treatise on the Gospel of Mary. Why, after all, would Jesus say he would make Mary into a man? It makes more sense for the Teacher to have said he would help her become fully human.

I won’t go into all the points of interest I came across in this thoughtful translation and commentary. Let me simply conclude that I recommend it to anyone concerned with learning more about the non-canonical gospels, Christian or gnostic history, Mary Magdalene and Jesus, the divine feminine, or nuances in translation of the gospels.

Originally posted 08-31-2004 on MSV

2 comments on “The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, by Jean-Yves Leloup

  1. Victor Ross says:

    I have recently read The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, Being Still, and the Gospel of Thomas. Jean-yves Leloup has convinced me that the gnostics we not heretics, but the original Christians.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I love books like this! These topics are so sensitive, especially these ‘nuances in translation’ you speak of. As a translator myself I love reading these kind of books.